Once upon a time, a man born and raised in Norwich commanded the most important victory in the history of America.
Some 232 years ago this week, he lay badly wounded in the back of a wagon as he was taken to an Albany, N.Y., hospital. He had been wounded the day before on the battlefield. His left leg, from about his knee to his hip, was shattered. They would save the leg, but there was no way to repair the bone. So, this general, Benedict Arnold, would be held down as they cut his leg and sawed the bone, removing about three inches of it. There was no anesthesia and no pain killers for the long recovery.
I wonder if we Americans fully realize the price that was paid for our freedom. Today, Benedict Arnold is known universally as a traitor, yet there are many historians who agree that, without Benedict Arnold on our side, we would have lost the American Revolution.
Arnold was Washington’s best field general and one of America’s greatest patriots. Before he betrayed America, he was betrayed often and by many, such as Gen. Horatio Gates, who was officially in command of the Battle of Saratoga. He had a quarrel with Arnold several days before and ordered Arnold confined to quarters. On Oct. 7, 1777, British Gen. Johnny Burgoyne, with thousands of British and Hessian troops, came onto the battlefield of Saratoga.
The battle was going badly under Gates. It was then that Benedict Arnold disobeyed the order and proclaimed, as his secretary recorded, “None but God Almighty will keep me from battle this day. If I have no command, I will fight in the ranks with the men.” As he rode with his big, white horse onto the field of battle, cheers went up from the men.
It was then that he met another general whose name is very famous in Norwich, Gen. Ebenezer Learned, whose family, under the management of Ralph Learned, has operated B.P. Learned Insurance. General Learned commanded the Connecticut brigade which included the men from New London and Norwich. Arnold requested General Learned to let him command his troops, and Learned granted permission.
The reports from the battlefield said that Arnold turned like a madman, high in the saddle, aboard his horse, and charged into the British troops at Braymann’s Redoubt. A man possessed, he killed many of the enemy, and his determination frightened many more.
The Hessians were first to surrender. As darkness was falling, the British finally withdrew from the battlefield, leaving the dead and wounded behind. It was on Oct. 8, during the night, that Burgoyne ordered a full retreat and began moving his troops north. The darkness saved the British from disaster but complete defeat was won by Arnold.
On Oct. 17, 1777, Burgoyne was forced to formally surrender to Gates, who allowed the British to lay down their arms and return to England. However, Congress canceled Gate’s order, and the British troops were captured and imprisoned.
The effect of the American victory at Saratoga was enormous.
Gates, who was a cowardly, incompetent general, became the hero of Saratoga when the victory belonged to Benedict Arnold. In fact, as Burgoyne surrendered and presented his sword to Gates, he proclaimed, “The victory belongs to Benedict Arnold.”
Gates reported to George Washington that he (Gates) had commanded the victory, and he said Benedict Arnold was nothing more than a nuisance when, in fact, under Gates, the battle would have been lost.
Arnold’s serious leg wound healed somewhat that winter of 1777. Arnold lived in Albany, at the home of Philip Schuyler, general and governor of New York.
The life of Benedict Arnold seems an embarrassment to Norwich, though elsewhere in the country, for example in Maine and New York, his valor on the battlefield is celebrated. I thought on this anniversary of Saratoga, it would be appropriate to tell you some of the things he did beyond treason, as his treason did little to hurt America.
Arnold formed the first uniformed and fully armed organization in American history, the Second Company Connecticut Foot Guard, which still proclaims with pride that Arnold is its founder. The Foot Guard comes to Norwich every July to salute and present a symbolic presidential wreath at the tomb of Samuel Huntington.
Arnold was the first to command a victory for America at Ticonderoga with Ethan Allen. Arnold then captured several ships on Lake George and, with his men, became the first to invade a foreign country, capturing Fort St. John in Canada. He then asked Congress and George Washington to consider that Canada be accepted as our 14th state.
Arnold led an expedition along the Kennebec River in Maine into Quebec City in Canada. He was wounded and later ordered to retreat. Back in America, Arnold was then ordered to build a fleet to engage the British, who were invading from Canada. America’s first naval battle, known was the Battle of Valcour Island, was fought on Oct. 11, 1776. The fleet and the men were commanded by Benedict Arnold. While he did not win the battle, he did delay the British troops for one year, thus saving George Washington and his small army at Valley Forge.
The New York Times claimed, in their millennium issue, that Saratoga was the most important battle of the last 1,000 years. It convinced the French to join in the Revolution and guaranteed our victory. Without question, Norwich’s Benedict Arnold won that most important battle in America’s history.
Being crippled, because of his wounded leg, he was commanded to manage the city of Philadelphia, where he met and married a beautiful 18-year-old named Peggy Shippen.
When Arnold returned his loyalty to England with Peggy, King George III awarded Peggy Shippen a royal pension for life “for her service in the Colonies for the benefit of the Crown.” He married the most highly-paid spy in the American Revolution, and I believe it was her coaxing that convinced Benedict Arnold that he was unappreciated and wrongly charged with many crimes and that he should return his loyalty to England.
So, there we have it. The man whose valor saved the nation, and whose treason did little to hurt America but did instill hatred throughout America.
Arnold did burn New London. It should be pointed out that none of the citizens of New London were killed, and every house with a woman without a man was protected by Arnold’s troops. Every man who fought in Arnold’s army that day had, like Arnold himself, first fought for America and freedom but had returned their loyalties to England. New London was attacked by men, born and raised in America, under the command of Arnold.
While Arnold was in charge of the entire New London-Groton operation, the British troops were under command of Lt. Col. Edmund Eyre, a veteran British army officer. Though Arnold was in command of the entire attack, he tried desperately to call off the attack on Groton’s Fort Griswold.
Despite the obvious treason, Norwich’s Benedict Arnold did win for America the most important battle in all of U.S. history, and, by so doing, won the American Revolution by bringing the French into the battle.